June 28, 2010
Couples divorce every day. Yet it is particularly surprising when a marriage of more than 30 years ends. Take the recent announcement of Al and Tipper Gore’s split. As the news spread, we felt a collective sense of sadness. What were they thinking? Why divorce after 40 years of marriage?
Late-life divorce is relatively uncommon. Sociologists agree that most people who have been married for a long time are happy. Nevertheless, some couples still drift.
Late-life marriages dissolve for the same reasons any marriage does. Sometimes, there is abuse. Or infidelity. More often, the causes are even simpler: They grow apart, develop different goals, or no longer feel fulfilled.
Given the large size of the aging baby boomer population, this is somewhat new territory for sociologists such as Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies families. From an evolutionary perspective, the institution of marriage was designed to help you raise kids and put food on the table, he says.
“Only in the past half century have we had people who live long enough that they are together for 20 to 25 years after child-rearing,” Cherlin says. “This is a new stage of life, and we’re figuring out what to do with it.” It used to be the middle aged who asked themselves, ‘What should I do with my life?’ Now, 60-year-olds do, he says.